If you want to explore the dysfunctions of transportation policy in Georgia, here’s a great place to start:
The office of transportation planning director is the most important transportation job in Georgia, and the Legislature has an important voice in deciding who fills that post. The governor makes the appointment, but the House and Senate transportation committees both have a direct statutory duty to confirm or reject the governor’s choice.
So when Gov. Nathan Deal decided to fill the post with Toby Carr, a former director of the state Republican Party who has no training or professional experience in transportation planning, how did legislators react?
In the Senate they rubber-stamped Deal’s choice unanimously, with no serious questions raised; a House transportation subcommittee later did the same. Apparently, the idea of appointing a political functionary to the state’s most important professional transportation post bothers nobody. Democrats as well as Republicans have fallen meekly into line, lest they anger the powers that dole out dollars.
Sadly, this is not surprising. When metro Atlanta voters rejected the one-penny T-SPLOST this summer, they did so in part because of widespread belief that politics, not professional judgment, drives transportation policy in this state. And this is precisely the type of behavior they had in mind.
Now contrast that hands-off approach with the way legislators are approaching MARTA, which is sifting through a pool of four candidates — all of them well-qualified professionals — to replace Beverly Scott as its CEO. Under state law, MARTA’s independent board of directors makes the hiring decision, with no provision allowing state legislators to intervene.
But that isn’t stopping state Rep. Mike Jacobs of Brookhaven. As chairman of a legislative committee with oversight over MARTA, Jacobs acknowledged Tuesday that he is only “somewhat” aware of the credentials of the final four candidates.
“Am I in the [MARTA] boardroom making decisions? That’s not my role,” he said, insisting that his legislative committee has no intention of dictating which candidate to hire.
Yet Jacobs also made it clear that if the MARTA board makes the wrong decision, “legislators may be compelled to take action.” A wrong decision, he said, would be the hiring of a new CEO “who is not presently in Atlanta, who has never run a transit system that runs trains.”
Only one final candidate, MARTA deputy general manager and chief operating officer Dwight Ferrell, meets those requirements. And while Ferrell may conceivably be the best candidate, Jacobs’ heavy-handed intervention could turn more independent-minded MARTA board members against him.
To Jacobs’ credit, he is honestly concerned about MARTA’s future and the looming financial crisis it faces. He is a great improvement over his predecessor as chair of the MARTA oversight committee, known as MARTOC. Former state Rep. Jill Chambers seemed to take a perverse glee in torturing the transit agency, and in public at least, legislative leaders did little to restrain her cruelty.
Jacobs, in contrast, describes MARTA as “an asset of great significance” to Georgia. When pressed, he acknowledges that despite its local reputation, the agency is well respected nationally as a cost-efficient provider of transit services. “There’s a perception that legislators as a group are hostile to MARTA,” he says, “but I’m a DeKalb legislator who appreciates MARTA’s importance to the state, sees the fiscal situation approaching critical mass and genuinely wants to see the situation addressed.”
Jacobs believes that an operational audit of MARTA by KPMG will soon recommend at least some areas in which the agency can cut its costs. If so, those recommendations ought to be pursued. But the truth is, MARTA is a generally well-run transit agency crippled by a hostile political environment. It is the only major transit system in the country forced to operate without financial support from the state, and it is handicapped by financial restrictions imposed by the state that other agencies do not face.
Yet when asked whether the Legislature bears any responsibility whatsoever for MARTA’s plight, Jacobs dodged the question. Because in the cultural conflict that passes for transportation debate in Georgia, MARTA is an agency that can do no right.
– Jay Bookman